Review: The Mark of the Bell Witch (2020)

Directed by: Seth Breedlove. Starring: Adrienne Breedlove, Amy Davies, Aaron Gascon. Runtime: 1h 25 min.

Seth Breedlove’s latest doc, The Mark of the Bell Witch, for his production company Small Town Monsters, which documents strange occurrences in America, shows it isn’t only limited to Bigfoot or Mothmen.

Here, the 200-year-old mystery of the Bell Witch, who haunted the Bell family in Tennessee in the early 1800’s (a significant event in this story took place on December 20, 1820, making this film released 200 years later nearly to the day). The Bell family lived in Adams, Tennessee, and for five years were haunted by an apparition hellbent on destroying their lives, leaving death in its. This film aims to analyze the truth about what happened.

The most curious and interesting thing about this story is that it’s a haunting and that she’s called the Bell Witch. We learn that in those days anything supernatural or out of the ordinary, they’d just dub it a witch; though she is much more like a demon than a witch, making this feel like a traditional haunting.

I love folklore stories like this and creepy urban legends, but all the time spent on the history of the town and aspects like that made me lose interest at various times during the film. This feels too much structured like a history lesson, especially when I only want to hear about the haunting, and that structure makes it less compelling. As well, the film really starts out by laying out the history of the town and the Bell family before getting into the interesting part of the film, which is the Bell Witch; so that just makes this feel unfocused occasionally.

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Amy Davies in The Mark of the Bell Witch. (Courtesy of Small Town Monsters.)

This is especially because the film feels like the necessary information can be relayed in about 40 minutes instead of the feature-length 85 minutes seen here. I think the storytelling is solid, but this is a type of tale that would be great on a podcast. The research put into the film is also extensive as there’s a solid balance between dramatic re-enactment based on the research, as well as the more standard talking heads as the crew speaks with experts (a folklorist and a self-proclaimed town historian for the town of Adams, for example).

The talking heads are fine, but some of it is either repetitive or some research points are so quick that when I found myself becoming interested, it quickly went onto the next point. The most interesting theory is who the Bell Witch actually is, and I won’t spoil who she is but learning about her history and who she might have been in life before becoming the Bell Witch is intriguing.

The re-enactment parts of the film is where slight horror is brought in, with some creepy sound effects and use of shadows at night. It’s never terrifying (a jump scare in the middle of the woods is the closest it gets), but there are some cool interviews here where people share stories that sound like urban legends, like eerie animals like two-headed dogs.

One thing I have to note in these “re-enactments” is that the acting isn’t that good. It’s really B-roll footage of people acting as the family, like the patriarch John Bell (Thomas Koosed wearing a distractingly hilarious wig, and if that’s somehow your real hair… I’m sorry) and daughter Elizabeth Bell (Amy Davies). I’m not sure if they could be good actors in a normal film, but the the thing is we only see these scenes with voice-over narration and them acting with their hands and eyes. It’s hard enough for some legitimate actors to believably act so well with their eyes; but these people doing the re-enactments are not actors… and it shows.

Kudos to Seth Breedlove and co. for showing and not telling with these scenes about what happened, as they make do with the micro-budget for a film like this. This just feels like an unfocused doc to me, as, even after we’re done chatting about the Bell family it goes on for about 10 more minutes recapping a Bloody Mary-esque urban legend about the Bell Witch, as well just analyzing the folklore tale of it all and how many tropes it has in it. If the ghost is gone, my interest’s gone. Frankly, my interest was never high in the first place as I just didn’t find this story interesting enough to merit the 85 minutes.

Score: 50/100

This film was released on December 15 and is available on demand and in the Apple Store. You can rent the film on Vimeo here.

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